BAGHDAD, Iraq—After months of silence, rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr placed his militiamen on high alert Wednesday and asked his followers in the Iraqi government to suspend their work as Iraq descended into political chaos a day before a crucial vote on its proposed new constitution.
In Najaf, which had been one of Iraq's safest cities and was high on the list of places where U.S. forces could withdraw next year, as many as 24 people died in street fighting between al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and a mixture of government forces and the Badr Organization Shiite militia.
The Iraqi government struggled late into the night to restore order, dispatching an elite force of police commandos to help overwhelmed local authorities and banning outsiders from entering the city.
After midnight, witnesses saw U.S. armored vehicles entering Najaf.
In Baghdad, at least two Cabinet ministers and several other politicians loyal to al-Sadr announced they'd stopped carrying out their government duties, and there were signs that unrest had spread to Sadr City, Baghdad's vast Shiite district where the Mahdi Army has a large following.
The sudden explosion of violence undercut U.S. and Iraqi government hopes that the new constitution would help curb the violence, and it renewed fears that Iraq's fledgling government may face armed opposition from Shiite as well as Sunni factions.
Earlier in the day, at least 15 people were killed and 59 wounded when suspected Sunni insurgents ambushed Iraqi security forces responding to a car bombing in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Hai al Jamea.
More than 30 rebels were involved in the ambush, unleashing a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire on the security forces, said Lt. Col. Hussein Jedouh of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. He said an Egyptian suspect was detained and seven other attackers were killed in the gun battle.
The outburst of Mahdi Army fighting in Najaf appeared unrelated to the ambush, but it came amid reports that al-Sadr, a longtime opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, had formed an unlikely alliance with Sunni clerics opposed to both the U.S. presence and the new constitution.
Abdul Salaam al Qubeisi of the Muslim Scholars Association, which represents hard-line Sunni clerics, said his group had held a four-hour meeting Tuesday with al-Sadr's aides and that Sunni clerics had visited their Shiite ally in Najaf.
Al Qubeisi said the Sunni group and al-Sadr agreed that no political process would be successful as long as U.S. troops remained in Iraq.
Both have called for a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces and have withheld support for the draft constitution, which Shiites and Kurds, the dominant groups in the government, presented on Monday over the objections of Sunni leaders.
"The constitution is lean and will lead to a fragmented Iraq," al Qubeisi said.
Al-Sadr's forces have clashed with American troops repeatedly since 2003, but he'd kept a low profile since last August, when U.S. troops forced him to leave Najaf after a siege of a mosque there.
Al-Sadr pledged then to transform his militia into a populist movement, and the Mahdi Army gave up most of its heavy arms during a weapons buyback program last year.
Several candidates with close ties to al-Sadr were voted into office during January elections, but al-Sadr has withheld public support for the government.
The fighting in Najaf on Wednesday was a continuation of a longstanding battle for control of the southern Shiite heartland between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. The Badr Organization is closely allied with the Iraqi Interior Ministry and is the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the key political parties in the Shiite coalition that won January's elections.
Violence apparently broke out over the opening of an al-Sadr office in Najaf's Old City, which was devastated by last year's fighting. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the office to protest the opening. Authorities said the demonstration turned violent and the office was razed in the aftermath.
In written statements, al-Sadr said Badr rivals had set fire to his Najaf office, and he warned of retaliation.
"The Badr Organization is directly responsible for this aggression," Abdul Hadi al Darraji, an al-Sadr spokesman, said in televised remarks. "The Mahdi Army gave you the chance to practice your political role, hoping you would bring positive results, but you have not. We are issuing a general alert."
Outside the remains of al-Sadr's office, the cleric's lieutenants could be heard making phone calls to other Mahdi Army commanders, ordering the torching of Shiite political offices in other provinces "without killing anyone." Later that evening, Al-Jazeera satellite TV station reported arson attempts at Badr Organization posts in Baghdad.
An al-Sadr aide in Najaf told journalists that his leader demands the immediate dismissals of the governor and deputy governor of the province. The governor belongs to the Supreme Council, and his deputy is a Badr Organization member.
Abdul Hadi al Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization, acknowledged that Najaf officials were linked to his group, but he denied that they were involved in the blaze.
"I demand a quick investigation to find those who burned the office, why they burned it and who told them to do it," al Ameri said. "And why didn't police get involved and provide security to the office?"
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari made a televised speech calling for calm and promising an investigation into the fire at al-Sadr's office.
"I call on all of noble citizens of Najaf ... to spread the banner of justice and tranquility among Najaf residents and throughout Iraq," al Jaafari said.
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Qassim Zein contributed to this report; Dulaimy is a special correspondent.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.